Psalm 130 – Believe, Hope, and Love

I cry out to you from the depths, Lord—

my Lord, listen to my voice!
    Let your ears pay close attention to my request for mercy!
If you kept track of sins, Lord—
    my Lord, who would stand a chance?
But forgiveness is with you—
    that’s why you are honored.

I hope, Lord.
My whole being hopes,
    and I wait for God’s promise.
My whole being waits for my Lord—
    more than the night watch waits for morning;
    yes, more than the night watch waits for morning!

Israel, wait for the Lord!
    Because faithful love is with the Lord;
    because great redemption is with our God!
He is the one who will redeem Israel
    from all its sin.
(Common English Bible)

Throughout church history, the book of Psalms has been used and understood as the Church’s prayer book.  Indeed, the psalms are much more than a collection of beautiful poems, words of assurance, and songs of praise – they are designed and meant to have regular and ongoing use as prayers. And I’m not just talking about the psalms being somebody else’s prayers; they are my prayers and your prayers. 

There are times when words fail us – where we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place and want to pray. Our stress and/or anxiety is so high, we can neither think straight, nor form anything coherent with our mouths. It’s in such times that the psalms present themselves to us as the path forward. 

What’s more, psalms are meant to be spoken out loud and more than once. And I’m not talking about saying them with a quiet mumble or a flat monotone.  No! These precious prayers of Holy Scripture are meant to be declared with full voice and a large amount of flavor!  They are to repeatedly roll off our lips with all the emotional and spiritual gusto which resides within us!  Tears and yelling are both appropriate and encouraged. 

For we do not possess a mere heady faith of thoughts and ideas; we also possess a faith that is robustly heartfelt, and dwells down deep in the gut where our bowels of compassion have their abode. 

Even with a cursory reading of today’s psalm, we can easily observe there’s more going on here than beliefs of faith, hope, and love. 

The psalmist is expressive, clinging to faith with a patient longing for God to make good on divine promises. It is chocked full of emotion, a prayer coming from the depths of the gut. The whole being is involved, and rightly so, because our faith affects the entirety of a person and everyone in the community of the redeemed.

If this psalm resonates with you in any way, let your proclamation of it be with the expanse of feeling inside you. After all, as people created in the image of God, we share God’s own deep sense of love – and love is genuinely love when it is outwardly expressed with a sacred combination of words, actions, and feelings.

Waiting, watching, hoping. We as humans do a lot of that. While we anticipate God’s response, we keep up the praying. We keep reminding God to be God. We encourage others to watch and wait and hope, all the while encouraging ourselves, as well.

Whenever we are stressed, more often than not, we thrash about, like a desperate swimmer in the middle of a lake, just trying to keep his head above water. Yet, the psalm tells us to do the counterintuitive: Don’t do something. Just stay there and relax. Why, in heaven’s name, should I do nothing?

Because the Lord will act.

And that action of God will redeem, renew, refresh, and revitalize. It will be new, like the morning dawn. A fresh day, that will not be like any other day before it.

God does his best saving work in the worst and most impossible of circumstances. We need not fear the overwhelming depths of difficulty and trouble. We can trust the Lord.

Perhaps the most awful of deep holes are emotional – deep depression and/or anxiety – a lostness inside oneself because of mental disorder. In such a dark oblivion, and terrible morass, one tries to survive into another hour, not just another day. Like a watchman waiting for the night to dissipate and dawn to break, there is a longing for God.

Deliverance and rescue seem slim. Hopelessness begins to calcify the spirit. Only love can release the hardening situation; the steadfast love of God is a gentle hammer, picking away at the grief.

This is a love which never gives up.

Today’s psalm begins as a desperate cry for help. It ends with an awareness of the need to trust, hope, and wait….

Blessed Jesus, in the comfort of your love, I lay before you the memories that haunt me, the anxieties that perplex me, the despair that frightens me, and my frustration at my inability to think clearly. Help me to discover your forgiveness in my memories and know your peace in my distress. Touch me, O Lord, and fill me with your light and your hope. Amen.

*Above painting of Psalm 130 by Virginia Wieringa

Psalm 9:9-20 – Assertive Anger and Confident Trust

The poor can run to you
    because you are a fortress
    in times of trouble.
Everyone who honors your name
    can trust you,
    because you are faithful
    to all who depend on you.

You rule from Zion, Lord,
    and we sing about you
    to let the nations know
    everything you have done.
You did not forget
    to punish the guilty
    or listen to the cries
    of those in need.

Please have mercy, Lord!
    My enemies mistreat me.
Keep me from the gates
    that lead to death,
    and I will sing about you
    at the gate to Zion.
I will be happy there
    because you rescued me.

Our Lord, the nations fell
    into their own pits,
    and their feet were caught
    in their own traps.
You showed what you are like,
and you made certain
    that justice is done,
    but evil people are trapped
    by their own evil deeds.
The wicked will go down
    to the world of the dead
    to be with those nations
    that forgot about you.

The poor and the homeless
won’t always be forgotten
    and without hope.

Do something, Lord!
    Don’t let the nations win.
    Make them stand trial
    in your court of law.
Make the nations afraid
and let them all discover
    just how weak they are.
(Contemporary English Version)

Everyone gets angry. Every single person on planet earth knows what anger feels like. And, to me, it makes sense that people get angry. After all, God gets angry. As people created in God’s image, we share God’s sense of justice and injustice.

That’s really what anger is: an emotional response to injustice. Whenever we are wronged or treated unfairly – or observe another person or group of people experiencing injustice – it stirs up our anger.

So, anger, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad. It just is. It’s what we do with our anger that gets dicey. A lot of human anger gets expressed in unhealthy ways by either passively stuffing it down into the soul and ignoring it; aggressively lashing out with verbal or physical violence; or passive-aggressively doing indirect jabs at the object of our anger.

The psalmist, however, takes another way of expressing anger. He is assertive, straightforward, and addressed God with his observations and feelings, as well as affirming that the Lord is the One who administers justice with fairness and equity.

When the poor are overlooked or oppressed by the rich, it is unjust. It creates anger, both human and divine. In their misery and hardship, they can flee to God, who is faithful to care for them and treat them with respect and dignity, as people carrying the divine image, like everyone else.

The nations of the earth are not all attentive to the needy. They don’t all serve their citizens and try to do right by them. Unfortunately, many people throughout the world groan under national leadership which is enamored with power and privilege – and forget those who are powerless, unable to lift themselves by their bootstraps.

Because of this reality, the psalmist petitions God. He asks, even insists, that God step in and act as judge and jury. It is an assertive use of anger that goes to the source of true help, to the Lord, who possesses both the will and the ability to overturn injustice and establish a right use of power.

Holy Scripture is consistent in its insistence on paying attention to those outside the halls of power. The prophets directed their message to issues of justice:

Learn to live right. See that justice is done. Defend widows and orphans and help those in need. (Isaiah 1:17, CEV)

Just look at those lawmakers who write evil laws and make life hard for the people. They are not fair to the poor. They take away the rights of the poor and allow people to steal from widows and orphans. (Isaiah 10:1-2, ERV)

He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8, CEB)

Do you know what I want? I want justice—oceans of it. I want fairness—rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want. (Amos 5:24, MSG)

Doing justice is taking up the cause of the powerless, the oppressed, and the needy among us in society. Because God cares, we care. To ignore the poor is to ignore God. To treat them unfairly is to flip the middle finger at God.

The Lord, thankfully, is a strong fortress for the oppressed and a protective force in times of trouble.

God remembers the prayers of the down-and-out.

Sooner, or later, those who are wicked in their dealings through exploitation of the powerless, will know firsthand, they are puny humans, and that God is immensely big.

Today’s psalm is both an angry petition, as well as an affirmation of faith. May it serve as a model for using our anger assertively, ordering our love rightly, and trusting our God confidently.

God almighty, you have given all peoples one common origin. It is your will they be gathered together as one family in yourself. Fill the hearts of humanity with the fire of your love and with the desire to ensure justice for all. By sharing the good you give us, may we ensure equity for all our brothers and sisters throughout the world. May there be an end to division, strife and war. May there be a dawning of a truly human society built on love and peace, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

**Above image: The Kveshi Fortress in the nation of Georgia.

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 – Do Not Lose Heart

It is written: “I believed; therefore, I have spoken.” Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.

Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So, we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. (New International Version)

We all face seasons and circumstances that stretch our faith and press the limits of what we can handle.

We have no promise from Scripture we will avoid trouble. 

Instead, Jesus promises his followers there will be adversity and stressful predicaments. 

The pressures of life can sometimes be so overwhelming, we might lapse into losing heart, either by chiding ourselves for the adversity and wishing things were different, or blaming others for our troubles, and believing that if they would just get their act together, all would be well with my soul. 

The ancient Corinthian Church had a bevy of relational issues and problems. Some they created themselves. Some came from other people. Other issues arose simply by living in a fallen world, surrounded by the effects of ever-present sinful crud. 

Yet, no matter the source or nature of the problem, the Corinthians needed a point of focus to direct their troubled hearts. They needed to be reminded of the grace they possessed in Jesus Christ.

Faith is a gift given by God. It is planted in the heart of the believer so that, over time, it will nurture, grow, and bear spiritual fruit. Out of that belief arises speaking words of hope and love that embrace the work of God in the life of the believer. The Apostle Paul said elsewhere to the Roman Church: 

If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved. (Romans 10:9-10, NLT)

Christ’s resurrection from death is both a spiritual and a physical reality. If we believe this truth in our hearts, we will be raised both spiritually and physically. Faith in Christ gives shape to the hope that, although we might be experiencing the effects of mortality and the fall of humanity, we are, at the same time, being spiritually renewed day by day. 

The very same afflictions causing our bodies to degenerate and challenging our spirits, are the same means to achieving a glorious, resurrected existence. There cannot be the glory of spiritual and bodily resurrection without a shameful death. Jesus absorbed the shame of the world’s violent ways onto himself so that we might be raised with him. 

However, this does not mean we will never experience difficulty in this present life. In fact, daily spiritual renewal can and does happen through adverse circumstances. There must be suffering before glory, both for Jesus and for us. Deliverance from sin, death, and hell is not an inoculation from trouble. Because it is the troubles of this life which teach us to trust in God, as well as weaning us from everything we previously trusted to deal with those troubles.

“Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust in me.”

Jesus (John 14:1, NIV)

So, we need to fix our gaze firmly on the unseen reality of faith and hope. All we see with our physical eyes is temporary. All that is unseen is eternal, especially and namely, God. Therefore, it is imperative we traffic in building heavenly treasure, learning to deal with the intangible and unseen dimensions of life.

We are to allow the physical to serve as a sign and seal of the spiritual realities they represent.

For example, Christians come to the Lord’s Table so that the tangible elements of bread and cup will bolster and fortify our faith with the grace that points to the intangible. The Table is to accomplish for us a spiritual renewal of lifting us up by God’s Spirit and joining us with Jesus. This union with Christ can never be taken away from us, even in death, because we have an eternal building from God which makes this present life look like a camping trip.

When I think of a person who is outwardly wasting away, yet inwardly being renewed, I think of Joni Eareckson Tada. She has been a paraplegic for fifty years, after an accident as a teenager in which she dove into shallow water and broke her neck. Afterwards, lying in a hospital for months unable to move, she had completely lost heart to the point of being suicidal. 

Joni could not even kill herself since she could not physically move. Finally, in her darkest moment, she cried to God with what she says was the most significant prayer she ever prayed: “Lord, if I can’t die, show me how to live.” And God did. Joni’s faith is as strong and robust as anyone’s, despite her infirmity and handicaps. She has learned to embrace her troubles as the means of growing her faith.

The path to accept, cope, and transcend our troubles and afflictions begins with acknowledging them. They only have power over us for ill if we ignore them or put up a false front to hide them. The Apostle Paul was open with the Corinthians about his life: 

We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8-9, NRSV) 

Paul faced whippings, beatings, stoning, shipwreck, hunger, poverty, danger, and trouble, not to mention the stress of caring for fledgling churches. Through it all, Paul was transparent, and named his troubles so he could apply the poultice of God’s grace to his afflictions. 

It is our brokenness – not having it all together – which shows the grace of God to others.

Paul consistently described his life and ministry in apparent paradoxes: strength in weakness; glory through shame; life through death; riches through poverty. 

Although we experience the fallen nature of the world, God bends each situation toward divine purposes so that what seems to be our downfall becomes the means to our spiritual renewal.

Therefore, we do not lose heart. 

Holy Scripture encourages us not to give up because of hardship, since those very same troubles are the divine implements used to form us into solid followers of Jesus.

We need some stress. Just like a violin needing its strings adjusted to the right pressure, God will tune us with the right amount of stress we need to produce beautiful melodious music. God is the musician, and we are the instrument, not the other way around. 

We are to interpret our stress as God tuning us for good purposes. The pressure we experience becomes the means of glorious music in daily spiritual renewal for the life of the world.

Believers are being renewed daily into a valuable work of God. The stress and trouble we experience is very real and sometimes quite hard. Yet, we have the hope God will bend each circumstance for good purposes so that, even though we seem to be wasting away on the outside, on the inside those experiences are renewing us. 

When this present life is over, it is not the end; it is just the beginning.

God Almighty, you reign supreme, including over our stress and pressure in this present life. You have brought us in safety to this day. So, preserve us according to your mighty power, so that we might not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity. In all the situations of life, whether good or bad, direct us to the fulfilling of your purposes through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Psalm 4 – Rhythms of Trust

God, you are my righteousness, my Champion Defender.
    Answer me when I cry for help!
    Whenever I was in distress, you enlarged me.
    I’m being squeezed again—I need your kindness right away!
    Grant me your grace, hear my prayer, and set me free!
Listen to me, you elite among men:
    How long will you defame my honor
    and drag it down into shame?
    Will you ever stop insulting me?
    How long will you set your heart on shadows,
    chasing your lies and delusions?
May we never forget that Yahweh works wonders
    for every one of his devoted lovers.
    And this is how I know that he will answer my every prayer.
Tremble in awe before the Lord, and do not sin against him.
    Be still upon your bed and search your heart before him.
Bring to Yahweh the sacrifice of righteousness and put your trust in him.
Lord, prove them wrong when they say, “God can’t help you!”
    Let the light of your radiant face
    break through and shine upon us!

The intense pleasure you give me
    surpasses the gladness of harvest time,
    even more than when the harvesters
    gaze upon their ripened grain
    and when their new wine overflows.
Now, because of you, Lord, I will lie down in peace and sleep comes at once,
    for no matter what happens, I will live unafraid! (TPT)

This is a psalm of David. It is a heartfelt and confident plea for deliverance.

David had a track record with God. For most of his life, David had a spiritual and relational rhythm of looking to God, trusting God, and resting secure in God.

Small Faith

I’m not sure where the idea popped up amongst some Christians that faith and trust in God means everything in life is going to be hunky-dory and a bowl of cherries. That was not true of any godly character in the Bible. In fact, it seems the more integrity one has in Scripture, the more they faced trouble and suffering.

It is the pea-brained, small-hearted, and gutless who have the time and privilege of leveling criticism and defamation on the ones sincerely trying to make a difference in this world. On the one hand, it is unfortunate that the spiritually devoted must put up with the petulance of puny people. Yet, on the other hand, the faithful recognize God controls all things and uses anything and anyone to shape them as persons who have grown expansive spiritual faculties, enlarged hearts, and gut-feeling compassion. The wise truly learn from all things.

“Trust the Lord completely, and don’t depend on your own knowledge. With every step you take, think about what he wants, and he will help you go the right way.”

Proverbs 3:5-6, ERV

Big Faith

The godly have become so because they have learned over-and-over again to let God champion their cause and defend their personhood. The faithful reflexively cry out to the Lord with all their troubles. The devoted aren’t shy in boldly telling God exactly what they want and need. They find joy in their spirituality, and they let it support them in stressful times.

God has shown them steadfast love. And they are supremely secure in the settled conviction that God has their backs. They believe it so much that followers of God can lay their heads on their pillows at night and fall asleep – despite the reality there are those who would take their life, if given half the chance.

No Sleep

Insomnia happens for a lot of reasons. Many, like me, have sleep apnea and restless leg disorder, both diagnosed medical conditions. Others can’t get a good night’s rest because of poor sleep hygiene by not planning for adequate sleep, drinking too much caffeine during the day, inattention to a healthy diet, or a host of other habits. Some, like my dear wife, have issues of chronic pain which can make it difficult to sleep well.

And then there are yet others who suffer from racing thoughts, anxiety, and depression. The stress of their waking life is so significant that several hours of deep sleep seems only like some pipe dream. It’s impossible to sleep when the weight of the day is pressing on you. Finding a sense of calm before bed isn’t easy—especially when you can’t unplug from the demands of your day.

I am wondering if many of us will even allow ourselves to unplug and establish some quiet wind-down time. Reading a real book – not one on a backlit tablet device – or talking with a friend or family member are simple ways of easing our anxiety and letting rest come.

Sleep ZZzz

The psalmist, David, had a regular practice of meditating on Scripture, recalling the events of God, and expressing gratitude and praise for answered prayer. Each of us has a built-in spiritual rhythm just like we have a circadian rhythm. Always trying to buck those God-given rhythms will inevitably result in being “off,” at the least, and experiencing debilitating depression, at worst.

Yet, when we learn to move with the unforced rhythms of grace, there is a groove we slip into which serves us well. In other words, allowing ourselves to be human brings health.

David had neither delusions nor illusions about his enemies, friends, others, and himself. He didn’t try to be somebody he was not. Instead, David had firm and confident convictions about God and the place of prayer. A steady diet of David’s psalms teaches us to hold together both faith and doubt, confidence and confusion, perseverance and perplexity in ways which strengthens belief.

Christ be with you: Christ within you;
Christ before you: Christ behind you;
Christ on your right: Christ on your left;
Christ above you: Christ beneath you;
Christ around you: now and ever. Amen.